Circles and Lines
February 7, 2010
A couple of weeks ago, I got up in the night and wrote this little note to myself:
A fundamental tension lies between seeing humanity's fate as a line and seeing it as a circle. If it's a line then it stretches out forever, presumably towards something better, and one's task is to move along it as fast as possible. If it's a circle, experience recurs infinitely and the only sensible thing to do is to learn to savor ever more deeply the stations along the circumference.
I know this sounds a bit metaphysical, and it can be if you want it to be. But metaphysics wasn't on my mind when I woke up. I was thinking of quite ordinary things and how we choose among them. Most choices we make, in fact, are affected by whether we're possessed by line-thinking or circle-thinking.
One of the most perplexing things I've observed are persons in lines at coffee shops buying beverages to be taken out. There are, of course, many possible explanations for this. A person may have just a few minutes to get to work on time and be under the thumb of a punctuality fanatic. Another may actually like the surroundings of his workplace better than he does the coffee shop. Another may have to pick someone up who's standing out in the cold. And so on. But I don't think these types of situations explain most of this behavior. Rather, I suspect that most people buying take-out coffee have convinced themselves that self-imposed tasks they are hurrying off to are more important than the leisurely enjoyment of a beverage and therefore that the coffee-buying and the coffee-drinking should be done as expeditiously as possible.
But why? Why are the tasks more important? We think they are because drinking a cup of coffee is not pushing anything down the line. It's simply something you've done many times before and that, we hope, you'll do many times again. It's an endless circle of coffee-drinking. You're not doing it to get to the end of coffee-drinking. You're not trying to put coffee-drinking behind you. It's like many of the other things we do -- kisses, warm baths, watching little birds (unless you're watching them for the sake of writing a big bird book), running your hand over a pleasing surface. We're not, as we say, accomplishing anything with kisses, baths, birds, surfaces, or, at least, not much. When we speak of accomplishing something we mean we want to bring it to completion, so we can get on down the line to the next thing.
We acknowledge the difference by warning against extremes. We call one man lazy and another a workaholic. There's a vague agreement in society that some sort of balance needs to be achieved. But we devote little time or energy to figuring out what that balance ought to be.
It's fairly clear that if you're trying to maintain a precarious balance it's easy to get over weighted in one direction or the other. It's also clear to me that in America right now, most people are over weighted. Many, though, don't know it.
There's no solution to this problem in the ordinary sense of solutions. It has to be struggled with forever. Still, we can manage the tension more sanely if we keep two things in mind.
The first is recognizing there is no perfect solution. If you realize you're caught in a human dilemma it doesn't chafe you as rawly as if you fall to the delusion of thinking it's something peculiar to yourself.
Second, you can learn better than you know now that the two impulses can often complement one another. You might discover that if you sit comfortably in the coffee shop and let your mind drift off to the workplace you will achieve more linear accomplishments than you would by hurling your body instantly to the locale of your problems. Thinking and doing are not always at odds. Neither are learning and doing.
You can ease this problem considerably. You probably can't make it go away.
February 5, 2010
In the 149th section of Daybreak, Nietzsche says that "little deviant acts" are worth more than the courtesy and peace obtained by conforming to cultural habits for which one has no respect.
Maybe, but it depends on what one means by respect and who's going to be affected by the deviancy. Deciding when to be deviant and when to be obliging constitutes one of the tensions, and one which arises more frequently than most others.
If you're reflective to any degree you're bound to hear comments daily that strike you as either nonsensical or meaningless. It seems clear that you shouldn't attempt to refute every one of them. That would produce perpetual conflict and annoyance. On the other hand, there are some that ought be challenged. Then there are those frustrating others which leave you unsure, and about which, no matter what you do, you worry afterwards that you did the wrong thing.
There are no rules which place an attitude or opinion into one of these categories. There are too many contingent conditions which always push you outside the rules.
When I travel to the South, I am often at a table where the blessing is said. I am sometimes even asked to say the blessing. I have no belief that asking the deity to bless food for my body will make it more nourishing. Nor do I think that thanking him for it will produce any divine gratitude. Yet I always go along with the custom and when I am asked to say something, I say a commonplace thing. Is this wrong, or hypocritical, or phony, or what?
The best answer I've been able to find is that the respect and courtesy I owe to my companions outweighs any benefit a critical response could produce. After all, to thank an absent deity for food is not a terrible thing. It can be seen as a symbolic gesture expressing gladness to be alive and to be among loved ones. That's how I do see it.
On the other hand, in these same regions I sometimes run into expressions about nonwhite people which I'm not willing to let pass. They emerge from vicious attitudes and can lead to vicious acts. I sense they ought to be countered, if in no other way than to express my separation from them. It's not always necessary to make a row but some sort of disapproval is required.
These are tensions that, for me at least, are fairly easy to manage. Others are more difficult.
In the United States patriotism is widely honored and good people are generally expected to be patriotic. Yet most expressions of patriotism are cloudy at best. It's hard to know what's meant by them because the people who make them don't know themselves and would be affronted if they were asked.
When is it worthwhile to try to clear some of this up? If somebody says we should support our troops, should I ask, "Support them to do what?" If somebody announces he wants America to be first, should I ask what "first" means? If somebody asserts that one American life is worth more than ten Iraqi lives, should I express the disagreement I feel? (I have, by the way, actually heard all these statements.)
This is where contingency comes in. I try to shape my response -- if any -- according to where I am, who I'm talking to, whether I think that saying anything contrary could possibly make any difference, or whether the difference would be in a direction I would find positive.
It's clear to me that a certain kind of nationalism is disagreeable and often lethal. I would like to see it go away. But how can I help make it go away? I have no clear answer.
I do think, though, that a pretty good guideline -- not a rule but a guideline -- is to keep Nietzsche's remark in mind. Little deviant acts are worthwhile. When you're confronted with something as monstrous as brutish nationalism it's generally right to try to temper it in some way. Saying so, of course, doesn't tell you what way.
Nobody should ever think the tensions are easy to manage. Nobody should be confident he can always manage them without mistakes. Learning to do well with them is a long discipline which no one ever masters completely. But with respect to small acts of deviancy, I think it's best to err on the side of boldness.
Truth and Truth
January 30, 2010
To understand the tensions, or at least to understand what I'm trying to say about them, you have to grasp how the concept "truth" has muddled our thinking.
Commonly, when we talk about truth we're referring to everyday knowledge, such as that somebody lives in a certain house on a certain street. That kind of truth is so obvious we are led to believe it can be applied to everything that comes into our minds. That's a serious, even lethal, mistake.
Many of the things we think about are not appropriate objects of truth. That's because they deal with ideas about which there is no adequate evidence. When you say, "I know that Bobby lives on Maple Street," you probably do have evidence to support the statement. But if you say, "I know that God exists," you are getting tangled in so many arcane linguistic and epistemological networks no evidence can guide you through them.
It is this latter kind of proposition that the theory of the tensions seeks to address.
We need some way to cure ourselves of the notion that we have to discover the truth concerning everything that occupies our minds. It's a sickness. Who says we have to have the truth about everything? The belief that we can and must have it produces a vast array of malicious behavior.
Many of the puzzles which tease our minds have no truthful solutions. To return to the question of the existence of God, there is no truth that relates to it, or, at least, no truth that humans can access. You can believe in God if you wish. But you can't say sensibly that you know he exists, any more than you can say you know he doesn't exist. Statements like that imply that you have attained a mental environment that nobody can reach. Thinking that we have reached it causes us, in every instance, to behave badly.
We encounter propositions of this sort everywhere we turn. They cannot be avoided. They are an essential element of human life. So it's clearly logical that we need to decide what to do about them.
I'm arguing that we should extract them from the realm of truth, or from the realm of debate about truth, and put them where they belong, into the discussion about how we can best live our lives. Many mental constructs are matters of living and not matters of ultimate discovery.
There's nothing wrong, of course, with trying to discover things we don't yet know. That's how science proceeds. There's nothing wrong, even, with trying to find the truth about things that truth probably doesn't apply to. It may be futile, frustrating, even wasteful. But it's not wrong in the ordinary sense of the term. Wrongness comes when we declare we have found truth when we haven't.
The habit of thinking we have truth about subjects where no truth is possessed, or may not be pertinent, is very widespread. Probably most of us entertain such thoughts every day. Clearing our minds of them is not easy. Yet we need to do it because when we are caught up in vapid notions of truth we cripple ourselves in our conversations about how to live decently with one another.
Truth is a valuable entity. We would do well to promote it in arenas where it can achieve deserved honor, and work to keep it out of regions where it can only dirty itself.
The Perils of Scholarship
January 26, 2010
I suppose most readers are familiar with Mr. Casaubon, the futile scholar of George Eliot's Middlemarch, who spent his life searching for the key to all mythologies and never accomplished much of anything. Anyone who starts out on a project like the one I sketched in my introduction should keep Mr. Casaubon firmly in mind.
Throughout my career of poking around the edges of the academy I've been amazed by the number of people who wish to think only by using the thought of others, by simply employing footnotes so to speak. There's a practical excuse for such behavior. The academy rewards it with salaries, tenure, book publishing contracts, praise for being a learned man and the right to wear funny looking hats at commencement exercises. But most professors are not cynical enough to seek only those rewards. They tell themselves they are doing something significant. I have tried, at times, to save some of my friends from this form of self-deception and I may even have had limited success. If I have it would be one of the few worthy things I've done.
The pull between wanting to explore the thoughts of others and desiring to develop one's own mind is itself one of the tensions, probably not one of the more important ones, but, still, enough of a difficulty to deserve attention. Managing it is not as easy as it might seem. Here's the reason. The human race has been visited by a gigantic mountain of scholarship. It is easy to believe that somewhere in that pile is the theme or the bit of evidence that will clear up any puzzle you might be seeking to unravel. So you can look, and you can look, and you can look some more, and then you can die. That's precisely what Mr. Casaubon did.
An error many fall into is believing that the consequences of one's struggles are all that matter, or all that anyone else could care anything about. It's true that the consequences have their significance but the process of arriving at them is probably more important. If one can tell about that process engagingly he offers bigger gifts to other people than he can achieve by bellowing out his conclusions.
I don't mean to disparage learning. One needs to know quite a bit about what other people have thought, and said, and written. One's mind is not usually made fertile just by walking up and down the streets of cities, or by wandering in forests. Those practices have sufficed for a small number, but most of us need to find out also what has gone on in the minds of other people. The trouble comes when we fall to thinking that's all we need to know. We ought to conserve enough time and energy to discover who we are, because if we can't make that discovery, nothing we proclaim is likely to matter much.
This is preliminary to saying that here I'll try to lay out -- to some degree -- the wonderings and wanderings that have led me to think as I do. I'll also include a few warnings about how you can get sucked into dead ends, which is not always a bad thing but can be wearing.
Last night, for example, reading in Alex McIntyre's The Sovereignty of Joy, I came on Eric Voegelin's assessment that grasping the tension between "being" and "becoming" was a key to understanding Plato after The Republic. I hadn't fully decided that I was going to explore the tension between being and becoming but the thought of it was close enough to my subject to intrigue me. I also realized that "Eric Voegelin" was just one of those names that registered barely enough with me to allow me to pass it by -- one of those émigré European scholars tossed upon America's shores by the tumult of the Second World War. Truth is, I really didn't know anything significant about Voegelin and yesterday evening that struck me as not quite right.
After a bit of scurrying around, I found a substantial review by Mark Lilla, published in the summer of 2007, dealing with the collected works of Eric Voegelin in thirty-four volumes, put out by the University of Missouri Press. Though it was more than four thousand words long, I read it through. I'm glad I did. It was a clear and informative essay.
I'm not sure, after such a brief exploration, whether Voegelin is a figure I'll need to consult further as I proceed with this project. He may be. I'm not going to read all thirty-four of his volumes. But his idea that Gnosticism is a foundation for modern totalitarianism is just provocative and screwy enough that it might repay some additional thought. We'll see.
At any rate, that's how I proceed, looking at this, looking at that, trying to figure out just how useful it might be, without getting caught up in so much stuff I'll drown. The title of Lilla's review, by the way, is "Mr. Casaubon in America." That's probably not a fair characterization of Voegelin, but it would be a fair description of me if I tried to read all his books.
January 25, 2010
I'm always torn between an ambition to construct substantial book-length texts and the compulsion to testify about events in the world as they occur. Over the past several years I've done pretty well with respect to the latter and abominably so far as the first is concerned.
One reason I've behaved as I have is that my web site is always calling me. Even though it's read by few people, it is occasionally read, and I feel a kind of loyalty to the people who read it. I sense that I shouldn't leave them with nothing from me for days on end. So even when I can't readily think of anything to say, I force myself. And most of the time I come up with something.
It has occurred to me that I could use that same motivation to help me turn out longer, more coherent works.
Of all the books I've thought of writing over the past decade -- and I have thought of quite a number -- the one that stays with me most consistently is an account of how our lives are built on what I've come to think of fundamental tensions. By that I mean that we are always being pulled back and forth between seemingly opposing ideas and desires, and that no matter how hard we try to resolve the tension they create by selecting one pole and dismissing the other, we can't do it, not really, not fully. I've gradually come to believe that we shouldn't try and that the only people who convince themselves they have resolved the tensions that way become fanatics who end up harming themselves and others.
As soon as you start to think of life's tensions as irresolvable oppositions, dozens suggest themselves. You might begin with the existence or nonexistence of God and keep on virtually forever. If you can't banish these tensions, then what can you do with them? It seems to me we all need to learn to live with them, manage them, so to speak, and that there are methods for managing them well or managing them badly.
The book I've had it mind to write would deal with some of those techniques and lay out a few of the puzzles surrounding them. If I've learned just one thing already, it's that trying to think about managing the tensions unearths an ungodly number of puzzles.
Anyway, those of you who have visited this site know that I have a batch of topics I comment on from time to time -- politics in "On and Off the Mark," movies and television in "Images Rising," literature in "Readings," and so on. I'm going to add "Tensions" to that list and try to post something to it fairly frequently. I'm hopeful that I can collect enough thoughts that after a while -- a year or two -- I can, by rearranging them, make them into a book. But even if I can't I will, at least, have got something down on the subject.
My friends and family members, caring about me in a practical way, have urged me to produce books for the rewards that books are thought to bring to their authors -- a bit of recognition, maybe even fame, and, perhaps, money. I would like those things if they were to come about. But I'm old enough to know they're unlikely. So if the task is to be done it will have to be for the love of it. And who knows? I may love it enough.
©John R. Turner
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